Is South Africa an old or a young wine country? There is on the one hand the entry of 2 February 1659 in colonial administrator Jan van Riebeek’s diary recording the first wine to be produced here so in a fundamental sense a very long tradition. On the other hand, apartheid and all that it wrought was not kind to local wine and it could be argued that in terms of the modern era, the industry has only been a global player since Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990.
Of course, the above is simplistic as a luncheon on Friday to celebrate 30 years of Rubicon from Stellenbosch property Meerlust caused me to think. This wine was first made in 1980 and is the country’s second-most long-lived Bordeaux-style red blend (after the Welgemeend Estate Reserve that was conceived the year before).
Winemaker Chris Williams incumbent since 2004 showed a line-up of 10 wines, intended to demonstrate “continuity of style” over the decades, these consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon 1969 and then the 1980, 1984, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2010 vintages of Rubicon (and in showing the 2010 vintage, the day became a celebration of 31 years of Rubicon although only only 28 releases because ’85, ’90 and ’02 were declassified but no matter!).
Was there a thread of similarity that ran through the wines? I have been lucky enough to attend a few verticals of Rubicon over the years and what always strikes me is how austere and sometimes angular the wines are. I find this comforting as this is a label that has acquired near-icon status, and it suggests that wines don’t necessarily have to be dumbed down in order to attract a popular following.
Lesser vintages of Rubicon can come across as severe but at its best, it presents as very classic with great wealth of bouquet, concentration of flavour as well as fresh acidity and pleasingly firm tannins. I thought the maiden vintage 1980 showed particularly well at Friday’s tasting: in terms of colour, there was still something of a red tinge; the nose showed macerated berries, fynbos and floor polish; the palate showed breadth and generosity, the acidity in particular being not too hard.
A good way of understanding terroir is the common denominator of organoleptic character that a wine from a particular property shows regardless of winemaker. The problem with Meerlust is that Williams’ predecessor Giorgio Dalla Cia was so entrenched there, serving from 1978 to 2003, so it is difficult to tell if what has had a greater impact is Dalla Cia’s winemaking vision or the genetic stamp of the property. When Williams has been there for a similar period, answers should be easier to come by.